Tuesday, June 26, 2012


   In conjunction with the old-school retro photos posted yesterday, I also dug up some snapshots from my "Gateway" BFA thesis exhibition in 1998 at the UAF Fine Arts Gallery. Two entire walls of the gallery featured a series of large (approx. 24 x 36") drawings of tors done with India ink, Conté, graphite and charcoal; the second wall was a series of woodcut prints; and the final wall had studies done in both contour line and wash. There was also a supplemental exhibit in the hallway showcases with photographs, maps and miscellaneous field studies. Also included as a way to impart an subliminal atmospheric impression of the environment in the background was a continually looped soundscape by Kathy Turco of Alaska Spirit Speaks of wind passing over rocks that she had recorded in the Alaska Range. I had the distinct honor and privilege to have Larry Vienneau as my thesis department advisor and committee chair, along with Todd Sherman and Bill Brody rounding out quite the powerhouse trio of talented teachers.

   The body of work stemmed from one particularly epic trek in the fall of 1997: two weeks solo in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve out on the Nome Peninsula. This involved flying into Nome, some hitch-hiking, and a lot of hoofing it: thirty-five miles one-way from the end of the road, and then another fiftyish back out to where I picked up a return ride to town from a super friendly resident. The Kougarock Road is one of the only three roads leading out of Nome, and it fizzled out after 85 miles - fortunately passing by Pilgrim Hot Springs which was a bonus for aching muscles - and then turned into an ATV trail up until the boundary of the Preserve (no motorized vehicles allowed). I set up base camp in the public-use bunkhouse by Serpentine Hot Springs, an unaccustomed luxury in remote wilderness, and spent several days exploring the approximately ten square miles of tundra that contained the bulk of the tors.

     It being "one of America's most remote and least-visited parks" I never encountered another soul during the entire duration of the trip, which compounded the prehistoric sense of isolation and wonder. The challenge as an artist was to somehow draw these massive granite formations and to find a way to imply the sheer scale of these megalithic volcanic upthrusts. Being in such proximity to the arctic circle there was no handy visual references like trees by which to depict their relative size (as compared to the Granite Tors at Chena Hot Springs State Park in the Interior). I learned many fascinating scientific aspects of the geologic processes at work behind these relics of the Pleistocene, such as frost action, chemical weathering and differential erosion. Also the cultural beliefs of the local Inupiat gave a spiritual significance to the site, who say the place is home to powerful spirits, and traditionally utilized the therapeutic properties of the hot springs in healing practices and shamanic initiation ritual.

     From the article “Student artist presents rock-solid exhibit” by Layla Borchardt-Wier published in the UAF Sun Star (March 31st, 1998):
   Most people think rocks are about as exciting as well, rocks. But not to artist Jamie Smith, who will transform the UAF Fine Arts Gallery into a wonderland of stone this week. “Gateways: Tors of the Bering Land Bridge” opens Wednesday, April 1, at 5pm, and will run through April 10. The show’s drawings, prints and ink-wash paintings depict tors: rocks sculpted into columns and towers by erosion.
   Smith said the images in the show are drawn from field sketches he made during a two-week solo trip to Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Peninsula. Tors are found throughout Alaska and other northern regions, he said, but on the Seward Peninsula the rock towers stand alone, uncluttered by trees and vegetation. “When I see them out in the wilderness, they’re archetypal, monolithic, geomorphic structures, he said. It inspired that sort of awe, intimidation and wonder… I was thinking, people throughout all different cultures and throughout hundreds of years have stumbled across these forms and had the same sorts of feelings about them as I did.” “And as a visual artist I can present those impressions.”

   But the process itself is neither fast nor easy. The show, Smith’s thesis exhibition for the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, represents several months of work, sometimes 50 to 80 hours a week – and the pieces that made it into the show are less than one-third of the total. “I was staggered by the amount of work,” Smith said.
   The work isn’t over, either. “Gateways” is not Smith’s only show in April. This year is the tenth anniversary of Smith’s cartoon “Freeze Frame,” which he draws for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner under the name Jamie. A “Freeze Frame” retrospective show will open at the Marlin on April 22.
    The pieces in the “Gateways” show explore different mediums and styles, from figurative drawings in ink and carbon dust, to soft lithographs and wash drawings, to stark black-and-white woodcuts. One challenge in composing the show, said Smith, is to give a sense of the rocks’ scale and mass. In real life, tors are 80 to 150 feet tall.

   None of the works in the show use color, and all are, as Smith says, “deliberately left unburied by details.” Even in the more realistic drawings, there are no backgrounds, no suggestions of sky or ground. The rocks stand alone, as they do on the windswept shores of the Bering Sea. “These aren’t landscapes,” Smith said. “It would be more appropriate to call theme landforms. They’re figurative studies of forms… This is how they feel, not how they look. You can look at it at different levels.”
   The title of the show, Smith said, comes from the literal meaning of the German word “tor”: a gateway. Which is what (the show) is,” Smith said. “When you walk in and you look at the pieces, it’s a gateway to another perspective. He adds that “tor” also has a secondary meaning: the German word means “fool,” as well. The juxtaposition makes Smith laugh. After all, the show, created by a cartoonist, opens on April Fool’s Day.

     At the time I was interested in Chinese landscapes, and was particularly influenced by a copy of the "Mustard Seed Manual of Painting" that I had acquired from a former philosophy instructor. Some terms of interest were reflected in my attempts to instill a sense of ch'i by transmitting the living, ascending essence of the landforms through the usage of value, texture and a rhythmic compositional arrangement. From shih, the integration and demonstrated knowledge of of structure, I incorporated shih chun, or "rock nose," which is a description of an outcropping of rocks as a symbolic emergence of inner power, of prominence, and also a beginning (in Chinese mythos the nose is traditionally the first part to to emerge at birth).
     An ironic juxtaposition to all of this artsy-fartsy was the almost-simultaneous exhibition down the street at a local bar of a "Stiff Hairy Pelts" ten-year anniversary cartoon show on Earth Day 1998. The two contrasting and counter-balanced gigs pretty summed up the yin-yang of my creative efforts and interests at that point (summed up in this article).
     You can also check out some more snapshots of my hikes around Alaska uploaded in this Picasa web-album here, and some additional images from this exhibit are posted here.

"What this exhibit really needs is some cartoons"

No comments:

Post a Comment